Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Simon Winchester, "The Meaning of Everything"

Simon Winchester: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2093. 0192805762. xxvii + 260 pp.

I've always admired the concept behind the Oxford English Dictionary (and other similar dictionaries of other languages) — to include the entirety of the language, both rare and common words, contemporary and long-dead ones, in all their senses, and with plenty of examples illustrating their use through the centuries. How much more impressive this is than the ordinary sort of dictionaries where commercial and practical considerations dictate what is or is not to be included, and where words that are unlikely to be of use to enough people are simply omitted. And how much more educational, too; each article is a miniature history lesson showing how the senses of a word unfolded over time.

(Another and perhaps less commendable reason why I admire such dictionaries is that I always drool at the prospect of massive, many-volumed works, which such dictionaries of course inevitably are.)

In my ideal world, each language would have such a dictionary, but alas, it seems that relatively few actually do. And in my ideal world each government would pay for thousands of lexicographers to work full-time at producing and updating it, so that the whole thing could be produced in a reasonable time and then constantly kept up-to-date. Alas, in the real world, even in large and wealthy countries, this sort of dictionaries seem to have mostly been produced by small teams and work on them consequently spans over many decades, or indeed sometimes exceeds a century and enters the sort of timescales that we usually associate with the construction of medieval cathedrals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, once you have such a titanic effort extending over such a long period, enough interesting things are bound to accumulate that you can fill a book along the lines of ‘a history of the making of such-and-such a dictionary’. The present book, The Meaning of Everything, is just such a book about the making of the OED. I have found it to be an extremely enjoyable and readable book, you can really feel the author's great enthusiasm for the OED, and in fact my main complaint is that the book is so short — I read it in two days, and could have done it in one if I had had more time that day.

The author takes a broad view of his topic and thus starts the book with a short history of the English language, with a focus on its notable fondness for borrowing all sorts of foreign words, which has tended to bulk up its vocabulary, especially from the Renaissance onwards. He continues with a short history of English dictionaries, and I was particularly interested to see that the idea of a dictionary such as we know it today seems to have been far from obvious at first. The first early modern dictionaries mostly included just ‘difficult’ words that readers were unlikely to know already, many of them obscure recent borrowings from Latin or Greek that saw relatively little use in practice; and they were explained with no more than a short translation or gloss. It took a while for the idea to emerge of a monolingual dictionary that should include all words, detail the various meanings of each word, and illustrate them with citations from actual use.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those about the beginnings of the OED and the cultural milieu out of which it arose. Unlike today when most scientific work is done by harried, overworked academics who spend half of their time writing grant proposals, the Victorian age was to a large extent still a time of gentleman scientists, of learned amateurs who did this sort of work in their spare time and often on their own dime. The London Philological Society, founded in 1842, was composed of such people, and it was under the auspices of that society that what was intially called ‘A New English Dictionary’ got started.

It was an enormous task, but the Victorian age seems to have been just the perfect time for it, an age of ebullient optimism and dogged tenacity when people were unafraid to take on enormous tasks and sometimes, often enough, even managed to finish them. As the author points out, this was another side of the same mentality that also led to empire-building, the massive expansion of industrialism, and so on. Although he makes a few bows in the direction of political correctness by emphasizing or suggesting that of course the Victorians were evil imperialists, racists, sexists etc. etc. etc., he clearly also can't help admiring their sheer gumption, and for my part neither can I. I'm glad that they did it back then when it was still possible; I can't imagine that anyone would start such a dictionary today.

(But as the author also points out, part of the reason why they were willing to start their New English Dictinary is that they massively underestimated the amount of work it would take.)

There are a couple of chapters about the early editors of the dictionary, a colourful cast of characters who are not that well-known today. Actually the dictionary got off to a very slow and rocky start. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet S. T. Coleridge), was a hard worker but died of consumption at the age of 30, after only a year as the editor; next there was Frederick Furnivall, who was more interested in establishing new scientific societies (pp. 64–5), the company of women much younger than himself, and sculling (the last of these two hobbies he managed to combine; p. 62). Work on the dictionary stalled for something like twenty years and was almost abandoned until the appointment of the dictionary's main and longest-serving editor, James Murray. Among the many impressive characters involved with this dictionary, he is surely the most impressive by far; he was familiar with a stupendous number of languages, dead and alive (many of them quite obscure), he had something like 11 children (who occasionally helped him with the dictionary for pocket-money), and worked for many years as a teacher (while editing the OED in his spare time).

Under Murray the dictionary finally began making steady progress, although it was still much slower than had been initially hoped for. The book gives us an interesting look at the commercial aspects of the dictionary; the Oxford University Press stepped in as the publisher and provided some funding, but was also constantly pestering Murray to deliver as many pages per year as had been agreed upon. We also see a little of Murray's methods of work; he had a kind of shack (which he called by the grand name of ‘the Scriptorium’) built next to his house, filled with shelves of pigeonholes containing the citation slips for words beginning with the letter he was currently working on. One detail that I wasn't expecting is how many letters he wrote, sometimes asking experts for help on specialised subjects, and sometimes asking famous authors such as Tennyson or Browning to clarify what they meant when they used a word at a particular spot in some book of theirs. Apparently Murray would complain about Browning's habit of using words “without regard to their proper meaning” (p. 147), and I was surprised that Winchester doesn't mention the most notorious case of Browning's misuse of words, that of the nuns' twats.

Sadly, Murray did not live to see the dictionary finished, but by the time of his death in 1915 the dictionary had already become something of an institution and there was no doubt that the work would be carried on by others. It was eventually finished, with great fanfare, in 1928. (A full set was sold for 50 guineas at the time, but five years later the price dropped to 20; p. 239.)

This was followed by various supplements, then a second edition, and they're now working on a third. At the time when Winchester wrote this book, they seem to have still had some idea of perhaps publishing it on paper (in something like 40 volumes; p. 249), though I have the impression that they have by now almost completely abandoned that. Unsurprising, I guess; partly it's that looking things up on a computer is so much faster and easier, but partly it must be also that they are selling subscriptions to their website, so instead of buying the dictionary just once you have to keep paying them for as long as you want to keep using it.

Along the way the author mentions many of the minor characters involved in the dictionary, e.g. the ‘readers’ who were looking for interesting uses of words in books and copying them on slips for lexicographers to work on (surprisingly — or perhaps not — some of the most productive readers seem to have been insane in one way or another; p. 197). Some of the people who worked on the OED as lexicographers would later become famous in some other capacity; Tolkien is perhaps the best-known example, but what was new to me was that Julian Barnes also worked at the dictionary at one point (p. 244).

I really liked this book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who is excited about dictionaries. I wonder if the other similar great dictionaries have similarly interesting histories. Certainly some of them have taken even longer than the OED to complete, e.g. the German DWB has apparently been published from 1854 to 1961, and the Swedish SAOB has been in progress since 1898 and isn't finished yet (Winchester says on p. 140 that the SAOB has been finished up to the letter S; but that was in 2003, and by now they have reached V, so they seem to be making steady progress). Hopefully I'll get to read a bit more about those other dictionaries some day as well.

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